Saturday, April 21, 2012



Last week I watched two ravens  struggle over territory. The old bird, the “Raven King,” held his ground, perched on top of a lamp post. The young one was a fabulous flier, and handsome too. He kept dive-bombing. After each pass, he wouldn't simply glide into a U-turn. No, this aerial acrobat would stop in mid-air, vertical like the Holy Ghost, hold his position for a while by flapping his long-fingered wings, then turn his body and launch another dive-bombing pass. The old Raven King, huge and beruffled, held on to the lamp post from which he guarded his domain. His only response was ducking and croaking.

This went on day after day. Then suddenly the lamp post was empty. The following day, I saw the handsome young raven circling over the ravine with the eucalyptus grove, where I know ravens nest (they chased out other birds). Wondering if the old Raven King keeled over from stress, I thought, “It’s hell being male.” I realized that it was the first time in my life that such a thought crossed my mind.

Seconds later I was flooded with thoughts reminding me of all the difficulties of being a woman. I think it’s enough to ponder the fact that every day Orthodox Jewish men say a prayer of thanksgiving for having been born a man and not a woman. Wondering if the sentiment is still current in the modern age, I asked a few men if they were glad to be men rather than women. “Definitely” was the instant answer. “I’d never want to be a woman.” No surprise.

You may ask, yes, but what about those men who insist they are women trapped in men’s bodies and undergo sex-change surgery? One interesting brief interlude in my life was being a counselor to a small group of trans-gendered men and those who were still only contemplating the surgery. Yes, it was amazing to hear things like, “The great dream of my life was to be a housewife.” On the whole these men had completely deluded ideas about what it was like to be a woman. Their ambition was to be beautiful women, even if they were 6’2” and had a prominent Adam’s apple and a deep voice (the testosterone-induced deepening of the voice is irreversible).

Above all, their egos, their assertiveness, high self-esteem and risk-taking were in line with what one typically sees in men but rarely in women. Even though they were saying things like, “I think I’m developing female intuition,” I was never so struck by gender differences. A boy’s brain gets virilized in the womb when the Y chromosome switches on and signals a release of testosterone. This remodeling of the brain away from empathy and in favor of aggression and sex (also spatial ability) is irreversible. Likewise, I think, is having been raised by a mother who thinks you are god.

That’s not to deny that men have their special challenges. Tony Hoagland wrote some excellent poems on the “coarsening” that an adolescent boy undergoes, since sensitivity and softness of heart would not serve him well in a competitive milieu. It would be like trying to run with your shoelaces undone, Hoagland says in a poem about watching his younger brother being initiated into manhood. He laments the coarsening, but accepts it.


I think “coarsening” is an excellent word for it. A man yelling obscenities does not raise anyone’s eyebrows. Men have the cultural permission to use ugly, hurtful language, to vent their rage, demean others, hire prostitutes, and more. But once I had a dream in which, lost somewhere, I met a kind and protective young man. I was so moved by his kindness (which wasn’t extraordinary; mainly, he gave me directions) that I said to him: “I know who you are: you are the Good Shepherd.” The man in the dream looked like an average American youngster and nothing like the standard Jesus in paintings. His gentle voice, far from the booming, domineering basso, was enough for me to perceive him as Christ-like.

James Hollis, an eminent Jungian writer, finds cultural standards of masculinity cruel and harmful. He laments the lack of soulfulness, the competitiveness expressed in slogans such as “Who dies with the most toys wins.” Yes, it’s meant ironically, but we also see the underlying keen perception of reality. That sticker is usually on expensive cars.


But, let’s face it, there are also plenty of crazily acquisitive women, even if their toys are less expensive. No, that’s not the difference that gets at the heart of how difficult it is to be a woman (“a full-time job”). The essential difference is biological: only women bear children. Modern medicine has complicated this matter by offering women truly effective contraceptives, so that women don’t have to bear children if they don’t want to. For some women, chiefly educated women, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” got translated into “to have a child or not to have a child.” It has become a choice. And whatever becomes a choice has the power to become a torment.

Some thinkers were onto the torment of choice long ago. Hegel called unlimited choice negative infinity. What a marvelous term for hell. “Keeping your options open” sounds good, and for a while it may indeed be good. But if it keeps going on, you descend deeper and deeper into the hell of indecision.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I’m sure you’ve met middle-aged people, both men and women, who still haven’t settled on a career. Once in a campground restroom I overheard a woman say: “I still haven’t decided what I want to be when my children grow up.” You probably know some attractive singles who are always dating but never get married, or – my special focus here – women who keep considering the pros and cons of having a child until they find themselves in menopause. Then they may have a crying fit or two, they mourn, they regret – but after that’s over, when it’s perfectly clear that they don’t have a choice anymore – ah, the relief. (This is not an argument against having children. If you are a parent, just don’t read any articles on the benefits of being child-free. Your brain will provide plenty of reasons why whatever happened was “for the best.”)

At an art colony, where you often meet childless women who still kid themselves that they’ll have a child “after I finish my novel” or “after I’m established in the art world,” I met a happy mother of three grown-up children who said, “How can anyone make such a huge decision on a conscious basis? Life chooses for you.” I hasten to say that I’ve met even more men and women who said they’ll give themselves to art “after I retire” or “after the kids leave for college.” And once – I’m not making it up – I met a rich woman investor who said, “After I make ten mil (meaning “ten million dollars”), I quit business and start painting again.”

Artists smile faint Mona-Lisa smiles when they hear that. They know: if you are meant to be an artist, you do it because you have to. You can’t help it. You’re compulsive. That painting has to be finished, so you stay up late or you get up at dawn and just do it. If you are Louise Nevelson, you give your child to your parents to raise while you go to France to study art. (“You can’t imagine the guilt,” I remember her saying in a TV interview. “There are things you simply can’t afford to look back on.”)

Louise Nevelson Painted Woods

And I strongly suspect that those women who are meant to be mothers (whatever “meant to be” means) are the ones who can become pregnant even under what seem the most unlikely circumstances. No method of birth control works for them, even if they use two at the same time: “The condom broke, and I guess the diaphragm must have slipped out of position.” We’ve all heard those stories. From the point of view of contentment, the best policy seems to be to fully commit yourself one way or another and never look back and think “what if.” To refuse to live in regret. My favorite Zen saying is: When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. Above all, don’t wobble.


Here you may object: “But Oriana, you can’t just let life choose for you. Some choices do matter a great deal and we need to give some serious thought to them.” This sounds so reasonable that I can’t deny it. Cogito, ergo sum. The faculty of Reason. Isn’t that what makes us human? Put the pluses on one side and the minus on the other – and no running to a psychic either!

Yet no one decides to become a poet on a rational basis. Who’d possibly choose to be seen as marginal and even crazy, definitely not the cultural image of “success”? A book of poems does not become a New York Times bestseller, nor is it ever turned into a movie (the success of “Cats,” based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is monumental irony). Nor do we (poets and writers) really choose what we write about. We may try, but our central themes soon emerge anyway; there seems to be no escape from our central themes. 

Now, I don’t understand how anyone becomes a tuba player either, but I don’t suppose that the person has tried out every instrument there is, and after much deliberation decided on the tuba. I’ve never interviewed a tuba player, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear something analogous to what poets say when they claim, “I didn’t choose poetry; it chose me.” Or, as Adrienne Rich said, “A life I didn’t choose chose me.” Is that by any chance a universal statement?

For that matter, I don’t know anyone who has fallen in love as a rational choice, even though a couple of men tried to persuade me that only women’s love is irrational. I have met a few couples whose marriage choice looked pretty rational on the face of it – these people had a lot in common and knew how to work around their differences (oh sure, now and then one of those “ideal couples” would create seismic shockwaves by splitting, and we’d hear reasons such as “I couldn’t stand the way he smelled in the morning” – or, in the movie “About Schmidt,” “It’s so disgusting the way she takes out the car keys a long ways off from where the car is parked.”).

The “good enough” couples I knew, including my parents, all got married late in life, after they had already “found themselves.” On the other hand, practically all those who married at a young age now invite the question, “What did he/she see in her/him?” Have you ever asked a friend, “So why did you marry him?” only to hear, “I have no idea”?

But that’s another huge topic, and I am now making a rational decision to stay away from it.



Another huge topic that won’t go away is precisely those creative women who keep kidding themselves about how they need to publish a book first (or whatever it may be that comes first), and THEN they will have a child. I was one of those women. Because of the biological clock and the knowledge that you can’t delay forever, the “choice” has a way of haunting you. After all, feminism aside, deep down we know that women are supposed to have children. Basically, a woman is a mother. Perhaps to have just one? One won’t wreck your life – or will it? I couldn’t forget the woman painter who said, with deep sorrow in her voice, “I shouldn’t have had a child.” I could shrug off occasional other women saying, “I shouldn’t have had children,” but the painter’s confession hit home. She let her partner pressure her into having a child, and it did mess up her life (he left the country before the baby was born).

In my thirties in particular I kept reading articles on the pros and cons of having a child. Two of them proved influential. The first one asked, “If unable to have children, would you consider adopting a child?” “No, of course not,” I instantly replied. This gave me a long pause. Enlightenment seemed near.

But even that didn’t stop the agony of indecision because of the old argument that it would feel different with your own child. Another article brought massive enlightenment. It easily dismissed arguments such as “a baby will make me happy.” It presented just a few pros and cons, but those were very intelligently chosen. One of the reasons against having a child read: “Your work or vocation demands a lot of solitude and quiet.” That was it. I said yes and for the first time felt total clarity as to whether or not I should have a child. It didn’t feel like a “no”; it felt like a yes to myself.

Even that clarity proved wobbly at times, and baby fantasies would haunt me for a while. But I knew those were just fantasies, like dreaming of dancing with the Prince. I felt the truth of Gloria Steinem’s famous remark, “I could not give birth to myself and to another person.” Having the time to read and write, take classes, develop my mind – that’s what I wanted: to give birth to myself.

And then life chose for me: “later” rolled into “too late now.” I had a good cry; then I felt at peace at last. “That was the one mistake that I didn’t make,” I thought with triumph. Given that I felt my life was mostly a series of mistakes, I felt lucky. I felt blessed.


By a strange linguistic coincidence, the French verb blesser means “to wound.” Could a blessing also be a wound? “No blessing without a curse in it, no curse without a blessing.” But it’s a matter of degree. A blessing can feel 90% positive – that’s good enough for me.

In retrospect I think it was always obvious that I would have children of the mind rather than children of the body. “There are many ways to be a mother,” a line in a poem by Muriel Rukeyser reassured me. Teaching, too, felt like a form of motherhood. But mainly there was the joy of having a rich inner life that led to writing. When I wrote this early poem I sensed, not yet clearly, that the most important thing in my life would be having children of the mind:


Cherries burn in the orchards.
I wear cherry earrings,
a necklace of berries
that shrivel on the thread

like the faces of the very old.
Sleep smells of hay.
Honeysuckle twines
stalks of wheat.

After a while I cannot bear
the small weathers of the city.
The forest grows in me. 
Strips of birch bark

scroll around my fingers.
Mushrooms lie scarlet or secret.
The stream wrinkles to touch,
a live mirror.

I stroke pincushions of moss
and count cuckoo cries – replies.
One afternoon I ask
how many children I will have.

Sun shuttles through the warp
of crowns. The cuckoo,
countless, carries on.
Hundreds, the cuckoo calls.


Hundreds of poems . . .  I was yet to find out about po-biz and what it was like to have hundreds of unpublished poems. But at the time I wrote the cuckoo poem, the prophecy – finally understood – seemed glorious.

When I was older, I wrote a much more complex poem that had women in the audience nodding their heads.


want children. They comb the sun-silk
of their babies’ hair, tuck in a blanket
like a cloud. But I, I asked myself,
what could I give to my child?

Not the uncut ribbon of the river, the toy
blocks of bridges. Not bells of vespers,
that huge humming suspended in the sky.
Not a cascade of lit candles, the glow

bowing as the organist made the pillars
shake. Not that world I fled. Wasn’t it
too gray? And the story I was tired of,
how a cousin – I had ten –

came to welcome me, a new babe.
Asked: “Does she have a teddy bear?”
Told no, he disappeared for hours,
returned triumphant with a green-beige

teddy bear, not from a store, stores empty,
the bear perhaps from before the war –
his plush worn, but his glass-bead eyes
the first jewels to my newborn sight.

The bear went with me everywhere, sat
on the bookshelf wherever we lived,
his stiff arms stretched out to me.
The Gypsy was right, I didn’t know

I was loved. Love was in the winter
barley soup, in father’s giving me the first
slice of dark brown bread,
so warm it steamed like breath –

“We are all déclassé, we can’t give
our children what we had,” a friend said.
But it wasn’t about barley soup.
I was too poor to send my child

to a good school, and though I had
no child, my heart would spasm,
stabbed with the knife of that thought.
Yet in pine woods, when I was twelve,

a cuckoo told me I would have
children beyond all count.
I had to travel thousands of miles
through continents of life

to learn that they would be
the children of my mind.
I recognize those stubby arms
in their drab camouflage,

the sepia of autumn fields, of mud.
Look how they want to be held,
how their eyes want to shine
honey-green, like a forest in the sun.

~ Oriana © 2012

So the issue seemed resolved except for . . . dreams. Hamlet says something pertinent here. “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so . . .  O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” Dreams of what might have been have a way of haunting the dreamer. Mine weren’t exactly bad, but they were tinged with loss and sadness. But one dream was quite beautiful: moist, luminous, lit with love and lilacs. It allowed me feel the great love I would have felt for my child, while also helping me confirm the rightness of my choice (again, if we can even speak of “choice” – but let me not get entangled in that eternal philosophical debate – except to say that if we are lucky, we gather a certain clarity which may be delusional, but which gives a lovely light).


He meets me at the train station.
A smile dances in his open face,
his elegant lean body.
More than I ever loved anyone,

I love my son in my dream –
the lost amber of his eyes,
marble cross of shoulders.
How do I know it would have

been a son? A mother knows,
I say, I who have no right
to call myself a mother.
We walk through a quiet town

dripping with lilacs, peonies.
Is it Pomerania where I was born,
cathedrals of clouds –
is it France, misty Eden

of the Yvelines,
river-rich Hungary
No, these are the Mourning
Fields, the green

country of that other memory,
rainy mirror of what didn’t
happen. How lonely I’ve been.
We step on a rain-beaded porch;

as always, he disappears.
And these words, this parched
paradise, what is it if not
the life he has given me.


photo: Rebecca Sweet

So timely, your newest post. One of the things that most attracted me to an educational charity was the fact it emphasizes education for girls. Being the dad of a 14 year old daughter, I want her to have all the opportunities a man would. And you also touched on a subject dear to me; why do we become what we become and like what we like? In my case....why the obsession with Nantucket not from there, none of my family were career seaman but it's a topic that more and more speaks to me. And there's even a great American poem to relate to, 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.' It hits all my three passions; literature, history and the sea.


Indeed, why do we become what we become? The interactions of genes and circumstances are too complex to unravel. If I’d stayed in Poland, I’d be a different person; if I’d had a child, especially in America, meaning without help, I’d be a different person. I remember with sorrow the time a male acquaintance told me, “Don’t kid yourself, you’d never be where you are intellectually if you had a child.” I don’t mention it in the blog, but in retrospect, that was as heavy a verdict as the two articles that influenced me and gave me the courage to follow the hunger of my intellect. That was my first no, don’t do it – and I was very sad that I needed to choose, that women are so heavily penalized for bearing a child.

What working women desperately need is good, affordable childcare. This way they would be able to have children fairly young, which is optimal for health, and still be able to continue education and/or professional work. Speaking of the latter, I also dream of a world where part-time work for both men and women is normal and honored.

With all its references to the Pequod and Ahab, I can see why Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” would be among your favorite poems. I especially like “Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose / Oh Ahab’s void and forehead.” It’s wonderful the way “void” comes before “forehead,” creating an oxymoron that makes both void and forehead vivid for us.


Beautifully done. I especially love “David.”


The dream that gave me the poem felt a great gift, starting with the European setting: a relative meets you at the train station. So it felt like coming home. But the town wasn’t Warsaw or any big city; it wasn’t even Grudziadz, a lovely river-port town where I was born and often visited. But it was northern, rich with moisture and blossoms. The surprise, on waking, was that I instantly recognized the handsome young man as my son, and the great wave of love that I felt just looking at him. I hope that love is in the poem. So much love for someone who doesn’t exist, except in my mind . . .  The love, the loss, and the gain are all there. 


Having a literal child is only one of many ways to be generative. Having literal children is not everyone's way. But I feel there is something in all of us that wants to create a legacy of something tangible and valuable. I've been thinking about these issues since I was a chronically ill child, & knew that becoming a biological mother would be risky for me. I've always wanted to find other or additional forms of creativity.


When I was growing up in Poland, I took it for granted that I’d have one child. Most professional couples, like my parents, had one child. So that was my early idea of normal, and it’s been quite difficult going against that social conditioning. Well, I kept kidding myself about “later, later” . . . since in spite of the wise articles and Gloria Steinem and everything else pointing the other way, I had the feeling that I “should” have a child. Now it seems so absurd, that instead of “I want to” I thought in terms of “I should.” But I never thought of childbearing as a form of creativity (not saying it isn’t, but that just didn’t occur to me, and when a professor said, “Women don’t need to be creative because they can have children,” I wanted to scream), but as something opposed to my creative work, and to the life of the mind in general – a kind of intellectual and creative death sentence, almost.

If a nanny had been possible, or if I were a man, how totally different my attitude would have been! I know that there are beautiful experiences connected with having children, and of course I have had my imaginary son, David, for decades now – I love imagining taking him to places like the Scripps Aquarium, and showing him the wonders of nature. I still engage in those fantasies, for pure pleasure – now that there is no longer any “threat,” so to speak. It was only after menopause that I finally saw young children were fascinating and beautiful to look at, and could even enjoy being around them for a while, especially the quiet bright ones, ages 6 to 9 – when they seem most affectionate. 

But I still wouldn’t adopt, no way. My life is so full, so rich I guess yours is too – great they you sought out other forms of creativity), there is really no room in it for a demanding, dependent human being. And it was always that way, really – I never “needed” a child. And when I thought of women who inspired me, women who had reached greatness, like Emily Dickinson and Georgia O'Keefe, those were mostly childless women. And here I am reminded that we don't ever hear about "childless men." 

I’m also reminded of Simone de Beauvoir’s “One is not born a genius. One becomes a genius.” I don’t think I’ll ever become a genius, but to even think of some development yet left is exciting. To just keep developing, working into the unknown. Yes, brain children rather than biological children. Because you can’t have it all. 


I grew up in a large family and always knew that was not for me! But I did want to have at least one child--not because I "should" but b/c I enjoyed small children. i saw mothering as potentially creative if disentangled from conventionalities. And I did have a child, though on the Universe's timetable and not my own! But after that, I was done. lthough my husband and I are now very involved in helping to raise our daughter's little boy-another surprise person. when i was young i despaired that i could ever survive economically if i committed to poetry and music, so i sought other fields where creativity can be very important--life science, social work. but being a mother and becoming too disabled to work a "real" job brought me back gradually to my *real* work. i bet you could write a whole poem cycle about your adventures with your imaginary son."


When I did baby-sitting, I enjoyed one little girl, who was bright and hardly ever cried; not once did she howl like a siren. Other small children were a nightmare. Recently it occurred to me that perhaps my child would have been similar to me, bright and quiet. But a friend who’s a mother of five (“one for each method of birth control”) quickly squashed this: “There is no guarantee.” So now and then I just enjoy the fantasy of taking my bright, quiet fantasy child somewhere interesting – imagine showing him the beauty of the Eastern Sierra! Or, since this is fantasy, Italy! And I remember a woman gynecologist who said, while prescribing the Pill for me, “I think you’d be a fun mother for the child to have.” Of course I’d be entertaining; bedtime reading was endlessly imaginable as an outlet for the ham actress in me (my inner “hamstress”). And I remember a faculty wife who said, “Having a child will be a great adventure for you. It always is an adventure, but for you it will be a really great adventure.”

But here I can’t forget Adam Zagajewski’s saying that children don’t share their parents’ interests and passions, and he gave some pretty crushing examples. So David, my brilliant intellectual, now a mathematics professors at Princeton, or, rarely, my fantasy daughter Dara, with her lush dark strangeness and amazing literary gifts – all this is a very fragile fantasy even as fantasy, I know . . . Back in the years when I was still kidding myself about eventually, in the last moment, miraculously having that one child, another experienced mother gave me a look laden with weariness and said, “Having a child is like marriage. It’s not romance.” That was extremely sobering. As was the thought that dawned on me: I would make a great father. “Me too,” said my then best friend (we were both “graveyard poets” in Los Angeles). Two creative women, we shared a moment of gloom, and then re-entered reality – which we found fascinating regardless. Maybe we need another saying: “an artist is never childless.” 


Re: the “coarsening” of teenage boys. Adolescents male and female have so many hurdles to overcome. It’s a time of bullying both subtle and overt. If boys don’t adhere to the "code" of manhood they are called sissy, gay, geek. And girls are held up to the beauty standards of Hollywood. It’s all disgraceful.  I'm so grateful that I went to girls school where and when I was spared much of this.


I wonder if adolescence has to be so awful. And no signs that it's becoming less so! With boys we can maybe blame testosterone-driven aggression, but with girls the mass media are greatly to blame for constantly presenting the message that looks matter more than anything, and the right shade of lipstick is vastly more important than grades, and the right hairdo trumps what’s inside the woman’s head (nothing, judging from women’s magazines).

Now that we have movies made chiefly for teenage boys, with incredible amount of crude violence, as well as abundant Internet porn, I can see why some social critics are convinced that “we are falling apart.” But somehow, somehow, we are inching forward. People eventually recover from the wounds of adolescence and its barbarous standards, and in spite of the violent videos and movies the actual levels of violence have gone down.

My secret hope is that I’ll live long enough to see even one day without warfare anywhere in the world. Friends tell me it’s impossible, and my hope has waned, but I still have a feeling that I’ll live to see the idea that war is morally obscene take hold in many people’s mind. Personal violence will be next in line, and maybe the “coarsening” of boys will become less vicious. Maybe I’m just naïve, and it’s my idealistic streak.


I've just read the new comments. I was especially interested in the man whose goal is to find the names of all the ships that sailed from Nantucket and the names of the crew members. I can visualize many poems resulting from that kind of search, or a novel with a large scope. I find that area fascinating as well.

My mother used to frequent old graveyards to read the epitaphs, dates and names and Yankee humor. This was in Rhode Island and Connecticut


We wish Scott much joy as he pursues his unusual project. There will be all kinds of adventures as he travels, I’m sure. I also see a non-fiction book as a possibility, or at least a personal essay (the so-called “creative non-fiction”). 


  1. Thank you for the David poem. It made me remember a dream I had long ago, long before I was married, long before I had a daughter. It was a dream of giving birth. In the dream, I was sitting on a chair when suddenly there were pains in my stomach, cramps and worse, and after much suffering, I gave birth to something frog-like. It came, placenta and all, through my mouth, and I looked at the creature and was happy and knew I would always be happy with this beautiful birth.

  2. One more thing, your remarks about the differences between men and women (men's "egos, their assertiveness, high self-esteem and risk-taking") reminded me of a terrific novel about the Donner Party and their attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains in winter. The book is called Mothers by Vardis Fisher, a mormon novelist. What's remarkable about the story is that most of the men in the party gave up, died, couldn't make it across, while the women struggled through to arrive in California and safety. The women had a Promethean "gene" for perseverance that kept them going.

  3. Wonderful to know that dreams of being pregnant and giving birth (I've had plenty of those) are not confined to women. It's hard to resist the temptation to equate giving birth through your mouth with birthing words, but I think we should resist it. The frog-like creature is a wonderful in itself, an example of the brain's boundless creativity.

  4. About women's perseverance: women are known to be more likely to survive famine, and this is in part physiological (e.g. higher body fat as an adaptation for pregnancy). As for not giving up in the psychological sense: I think we have plenty of anecdotal evidence for this. As the primary nurturers, women have learned to encourage others not to give up -- and that automatically encourages the nurturer not to give up.

    Somewhere I read that after the war German men felt depressed, but the German women pulled them through the difficult first years. I seem to remember the statement "Our women saved us."